The Grim Truth About Living in Latin America

Life in Latin America is easy, if you are an expat. The people are nice and friendly, the culture is rich and vibrant and living is usually cheap and with higher standards than those you are used to. But there are also grim sides to the Latin American story, that no one is talking about. Well it’s time someone broke the silence and told the truth.

Where Are All the Bald Men?

Young men lining up to a barber shop to get a fashionable haircut in Guadalajara. Middle-aged farmers sitting with their early breakfast in an eatery on the outskirts of Bogota. Older men rocking in chairs outside their houses on the streets of Granada, gazing at the passer-byers and letting off the day’s heat. When you see men in Latin America, no matter what is their age, their economic status and their political inclinations, chances are their lush, god-given hair is intact. And frankly, it is infuriating. 

This Mexican man working on a chair for the colourful boats of Xochimilco could be a donor for several head transplants

 

As a balding head-shaving man, my main line of psychological defense has always lay with the fellow-men surrounding me. In Israel, where genes and stress collude to rope men of their hair,  severely balding and head-shaving men, including guys in their thirties, provide a sizeable and visible community of men. We have such a heavy presence, that slick, shiny head skin has become somewhat fashionable and sexy. But in Latin America, the numbers are against you.

Young men looking nonchalant on a bus in Mexico City. Only someone who knows that balding doesn’t hold any power over him could look like this.

 

Here I am with Mexican friends in Merida. Telling me from the locals shouldn’t be difficult.

 

Long Jeans on a Hot Day

As if to tell you they are better than you, Latinos don’t wear shorts. Doesn’t matter it’s 34C outside and the city is melting. Doesn’t matter that the mere thought of getting into thick, air-isolating garments is anxiety-inducing. The only ones ventilating their genitals on hot days are foreigners.

On a boat to Ometepe island in Nicaragua lake. Telling foreigners from locals is easy.

 

Now if you are a traveler, you don’t care much about how you look. But if you intend on staying here for some time, forget about looking respectable. Your shorts and flip-flops just won’t cut it.

Cartago, Costa Rica. What separates the man from the child is the length of his pants.

 

Babies in Latin America are often wrapped up in warm blankets even on hot days. Could this be the reason behind the ridiculous tolerance to heat and discomfort demonstrated by the locals?

Good Day or Is It?

It’s the weekend, you woke up late, had a nice breakfast in a local eatery, sipped on your coffee, not hurrying anywhere. Feeling carefree you walk down the street and see a familiar face. “Buenos dias, amigo” you tell to your neighbour. “Buenas tardes” he tells you back, smiling. Yes, you did it again. You didn’t check the clock before greeting someone, and fell again in the same trap. You see, in Spanish Buenos Dias is actually “good morning”, not “good day”. Once the clock strikes 12:00, you are expected to say “buenas tardes” instead. Unless you are really good at reading the position of the sun in the sky (or carry a clock, a smartphone, a tablet, or anything else of that nature), you are screwed.

So how exactly are you expected to enjoy your life in Latin America, if you can’t say Good Day to people, without getting anxious about getting it wrong?

The central square of Salento, Colombia. Is it Buenas Dias or Buenas Tardes? No way to know without looking at your clock. Nuts.

 

Why Won’t They Just Yell At Me?

One thing you realize about the people in Latin America after some time on the continent is that they are very soft-spoken. Contrary to the popular image of being passionate and hot-tempered, in a day-to-day life, Mexicans, Colombians, Costa Ricans are humble, courteous and often even timid. The level of aggression in public spaces is very low. After almost a year of living in Latin America, I’m still waiting to see someone shouting. And this is a problem for me.

People dancing salsa in Alameda park, Mexico City. Public spaces are remarkably free of any aggression.

 

As an Israeli, I’m used to people asserting their rights and voicing their demands in every opportunity, loudly and often angrily. How else are you supposed to resolve conflicts? I remember this one time I was in a pharmacy in Mexico City. I was trying to convince the pharmacist that my prescription had no errors, since just a week ago I was served without any issue in other pharmacy of the same chain. But the pharmacist was adamant, explaining to me politely time after time why she can’t help me. I was growing impatient and agitated, my voice rising, my sentences growing shorter, filled with increasingly more exclamation marks. Suddenly, taking a look around me, I realized that all eyes were on me, people looking at me shocked, whispering to which other. What for me was a regular, spirited exchange, was perceived as a scene of aggression.

How are you going to yell at people if they won’t yell back at you? That doesn’t work one-way, shouting contest requires a partner. And don’t they know holding back your anger isn’t healthy?

***

So here it is – the hard truth about Latin America finally told. What are your frustrations with the continent? Feel free to share in the comments.

31 Replies

  • Perfectly said, and I totally agree. Your observations are astute. Thanks for the article. Blessings on your journey.

  • Their love of paperwork and insistence that you need just one more paper before you can get what you came for (license, visa, tramite, etc.) yet no where is there a list of what you really need and even if there was a list, you still need that one piece of paper. And because this is truly passive aggresive behavior in its truest sense, it is always done calmly despite the fact that you have waited 3 hours in line with all the other Latin Americans, just to find out you didn’t have the paper that no one had told you needed and you are starting to roll your eyes because you already know that the minute you yell you turn into an ugly gringo. .

    • Sorry to hear about your experience with the bureaucracy. I myself haven’t yet encountered it, but I think you are right about the passive-aggressive attitude – I did see it several times.

  • Thank you for making me giggle today! You’re article really made me smile because frankly, everything you said is true!! I will also have to agree with MLMB, regarding that one extra piece of paper no one told you was needed, & yet every time you’ve waited in line for several hours, you’re going to need it & you’re going to have to go wait in another line for an hour to get it, and then return to wait again! I’ve also encountered the pharmacist who helped you just last week, but can’t seem to do it this week! We must be visiting the same pharmacies!! I’ve found it’s about acceptance, and remembering that I now live in a third world country and have to abide by a whole new set of rules!! Driving in Managua, Nicaragua, a city with no marked street names and absolutely insane drivers, is just a part of the norm. If it were not for Waze, I still wouldn’t know that the street named Pista Surburbana or San Juan Pablo Segundo might lead me to my destination! And probably the most frustrating of all is Señor Policia, who does not pull up behind me with his red lights on, but stands out in the road and points at you to pull over. Because my Spanish is not yet perfect, he will speak to me for up to 20 minutes, with rapid fire words in his language, which I’m expected to know by now, but don’t, and no matter how many times I tell him, in Spanish, that I don’t understand, he ignores my plea. I know I’ve really done nothing wrong (most of the time) but ultimately he must be paid in order to let me continue on my way. This can happen as many times in one day trip into the city as there are policeman that feel like pointing you over! So, yes, I do love living in Latin America but know I must live by the rules they have here, and I’d better just get used to it!! Otherwise, I would have to return to the USA, and for me, I would rather be here!

    • Thank you Gina for the comment – we indeed must be visiting the same pharmacies ))
      Sorry to hear about your experience with the police in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, corrupt police is a universal problem of developing countries.

    • ah, the dreaded police stops. In Nicaragua there are two types of police, the national police that have short sleeve shirts and the transit police that have long sleeve shirts, (don’t pay attention to their safety vests, they all seem to say transit police), only the transit police can write tickets, the national police will tell you they are going to write you a ticket and might even start writing something on a clipboard but they can’t write a ticket, but be nice to them because they can call the transit police to come and write you one if you piss them off. I find it best to just agree with them and keep asking (politely) for them to give you the ticket, it will be about 30 minutes of your life you will never get back but normally they will finally give up and let you go.

      • Good to know!! Thank you. I never noticed that there was a difference before! Know that I know, this info can come in handy! Lol! Appreciate your knowledge on that particular subject!
        Sincerely, Gina

      • Thanks for the good info! I had no idea about the long sleeved vs. short sleeved “officer”! Now I do, thanks to you!!

  • …Except about the shorts — my tico husband (who retired after working 40uears in the US) wears shorts, of course, but so do all his tico cousins!

  • We North Americans have a greater ”personal space” mental requirement than Latin Americans, that’s why we coined the phrase ‘arms length’…we don’t want people getting closer to us than apx 2 feet. Latin Americans’ personal space, even with total strangers is about 1 foot. One day I left my office for a break headed to the local AM-PM for a snack, so did a fellow worker in my office building a few seconds after me. He apparently was planning on the same and shadowed me on our trip there without a care in the world, walking immediately behind me. if I didn’t know better, it would appear in N America he was going to mug me or at least pickpocket me, no, just normal walking as far as he’s concerned. Suddenly I stopped and he slammed right into me, smiling and laughing and apologizing, I was irritated but how can I turn down a smile? We shook hands and walked to the store together, I couldn’t shake him..Latin people are affectionate, even with co-workers and mere acquaintances. After the Costa Ricans who I worked with got to know me, when I arrived at work the women kiss you on the cheek and the men give hugs for greetings, forget shaking hands or just saying hello. At first it was surprising to me and I was probably a bit awkward but then I decided I liked it. when I came to work in the mornings, I always got 1/2 dozen hugs and kisses before reaching my desk. I guess it increases your chance of getting colds (that’s what we logical N. Americans think of…) but I loved it. I later returned to Florida and on my job, even though we are very friendly, no kisses or hugs…too bad…it’s a nice comforting custom…You’re right about Latins being soft spoken and wanting to avoid confrontation. In my job, there were occasions where like any company, we would make mistakes, deliver something late, whatever, most of our clients were citizens of USA. Many times they would be on the phone demanding the problem resolved, they would always get reassurances the problem will be resolved “manana” meaning tomorrow. The Costa Rican employee had no idea if it would, but they don’t like angry confrontation, even if by phone, so it’s their little white lie to get rid of an angry demanding customer. We N. Americans in the company ended up having to pretty much deal with all complaints so we could give realistic explanations with customers calling back even angrier, that ended up being one of my main jobs. We N. americans living in Costa Rica learned “manana” doesn’t really mean “tomorrow” if you’re dealing with somebody angry, it means “not now”…I confess to using it a few times close to the end of my shift when I wanted to get off work and out in the beautiful tropical climate…

    • Thank you Marc for sharing your experience in Costa Rica. There is certainly less punctuality in Latin America, and this is something you need to get used to, especially, I guess, for North Americans who are used to impeccable customer service. For me as an Israeli, it’s less of an issue. The kind of customer service I’m used to is one with lots of angry exchanges, but without much effect 🙂

  • It is not how you say for everyone everywhere, just like in the US there are different opinions, if you are a baldy do something about it, don,t penalize or insult those defenseless. People are very loud, that is one thing I hate and miss the quietness in America, people can’t afford shorts because they cost the same as regular pants, but I assure they copy and admire US and they would all love to have a cool pair of shorts to wear, you know shorts come with sneakers and thick socks, they don’t have the funds. For an old, fat Man U happy with himself you don’t even respect yourself enough to learn their language and only guess what they say.
    I have a full head of hair speak Spanish, French and Portuguese without an accent because I love myself and try to read and or study every time I get a free moment.
    And I thought Latinos were loud, pushy and shallow. Seems to be you have excelled in that regard.Do not generalize, a hyperbole is better thrown at the sports field not with people.

  • Mike: I found your tongue-in-cheek view of the “grim side” of life in Latin America to be entertaining…which is what you intended, I’m sure. My wife and I lived and worked in México for over 11 years, and between us have been to all of the countries in Central America. We’ve returned many times to México, and have spent lots of time in Puerto Rico. Twice you used the words “the continent” in reference to Latin America. One of the first things I learned while attending immersion language school for 6 months in Cuernavaca, Morelos, México, is that people in Latin America are not taught the same geography lessons that we’re taught in U.S. schools. When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, we were taught there are seven continents. I’m guessing that most people in the United States have been taught the same. But in Latin America, students are taught there are five continents: Europa, Africa, Asia, Oceanía, and América. That’s right…just one América…a continent, not a country. It includes North America, Central America, and South America: the three parts of the ONE continent named América. This worldview really bothers the white nationalists who have gotten such a foothold in the U.S. these days, but this is the way most Latinos see the world.

    • Thank you for the comment. Saying “continent”, I was referring to the cultural and historical continuum shared by all these countries. But you make an interesting point. Separating North America from the South (and not including Mexico in North America, other than nominally) might have had political agenda, and not only a geographic one.

  • You haven’t been further South than Ecuador or Peru I guess. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are quite the opposite. Opinionated, loud and will get in a fight with you in a heartbeat. They will yell and raise voices and Brazilians are loudest of all. Latin America is pretty big so I wouldn’t safely say this is correct.

    • Hola Jean,
      You are right, we haven’t been further south then Colombia. Interesting observation, I wonder what lies behind the this difference in temperament. Regarding Uruguay and Argentina I could theorize that they are much more related temperamentaly to Spain and Italy then proper Latin America, but this theory falls flat for Brazil.

  • Like the writer of the blog I too am bald and shave my head. I had the same observation spending about 5 months between Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Nicaragua, many of the men have great hair. Just my observation; those who are balding may have European ancestry? Either way I was a little envious. BTW we enjoyed our time in Solento, CO.

    • Hi Steve,
      I think you could be right, balding could be related to European genes. On the other hand, living now in Medellin and looking at people here (most of whom are white), I still fail to see many balding men. But maybe slightly more than in say, Mexico.

  • I don’t agree with the baldness and the shorts I’m Ecuadorian and from quito Living at 2800 mts (9000ft) above sea level and I’m going bald and wear shorts a lot! Haha burocracia on the other hand cannot say it’s not true, shit sucks here, but I have lived in Italy as well and china too and t
    Let me tell you there you are 6 documents short every time….

    • Hola amigo,
      Thank you for reassuring me there are balding men here, I feel slightly better now. We are going to Ecuador in November, I will be on the lookout for men in shorts 😀

  • I lived in Costa Rica for 10 weeks with a host family when I was 19. My host mom was so sweet. She always made me breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was so spoiled! Early on in my stay I commented her on my oatmeal she made me for dinner, letting her know how good it was and how much I liked it. Little did I realize that I would then receive oatmeal for dinner three days a week for the rest of my stay! It was so sweet that she wanted to please me and I was very appreciative, however, I realized that if I mention I like something that I better definitely mean it 🙂

    • Hi Mary,
      thank you for sharing this lovely story. I guess after that you weren’t eating oatmeal for a long time 🙂

  • I find it very interesting that of the Americas’ most of the population speaks Spanish. Most of the Spanish speaking people seem more then willing to learn what your language is; English, German etc. It seems they know something we do not understand. I have studied the Central America Countries, and find the people to be the best part of them. I know it is a beautiful place in the world, but it is the sweetness of the people that takes center stage. I enjoyed reading your opinions. Pura Vida…

    • Thank you Jane for the comment. Latin Americans are very open people, interested in the outside world, learning languages is just one aspect of it. Pura Vida!

  • Living in Ecuador, I also observed many of the characteristics you mentioned. On women’s hair: yes, lots of it, but rarely gray, even in advanced age.Only your hairdresser knows. lol.
    The habit of speaking softly is evident in Ecuador, too. It’s soothing.
    And when in Ecuador, Mike, I recommend that you not drive anywhere without $20, just in case a motorcyclist broadsides you and he wants to be paid off. If you call a the police, no “justice” there either. He’ll pull you aside and counsel you to just pay up and not make a fuss. Now there, I sometimes raise MY voice and get truly livid. It’s a whistle into the wind.

    • Thank you for the advice. We always hear about policemen extorting money in many developing countries, but I never heard about this kind of petty extortions in Latin America. Did you encounter it yourself? Were you scared?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *